What has gone wrong in Afghanistan?

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The military intervention in Afghanistan by the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a consequence of the heinous terrorist attacks on US soil in September 2001 was welcomed by a large majority of Afghans and received unconditional support from regional stakeholders.

After decades of isolation due to a bloody civil war, the country had come under a spotlight in the international arena, which created an exceptional opportunity to make Afghanistan a successful case for international military intervention.

However, more than 16 years after an initial quick US military victory and tremendous investment in nation-building efforts, we Afghans are back on the verge of another civil war.

It is indeed puzzling why a mighty and high-tech military force has not been able to overcome an insurgency waged by ragtag rebel fighters. Despite several reviews of the US strategy, successive US administrations have failed to grasp what has gone wrong in Afghanistan. But from our perspective, it is the mishandling of local politics that has caused a revival of the Taliban and fueled a bloody insurgency.

In fact, lack of understanding of the root causes of conflict in Afghanistan combined with negligence on the part of those in charge of America’s policies turned a rapid military victory into the most protracted war in the history of the United States. Therefore, the US has fallen into the same Afghan trap as did the Soviet Union in 1980s, which was struggling to protect an illegitimate and unpopular government against the will of the Afghan people.

Lack of understanding of the root causes of conflict in Afghanistan combined with negligence on the part of those in charge of America’s policies turned a rapid military victory into the most protracted war in the history of the United States. Therefore, the US has fallen into the same Afghan trap as did the Soviet Union in 1980s

By 2006 some of us noticed that the United States lacked a coherent policy for Afghanistan, and the Afghan government was distracted by unprecedented levels of international support and sympathy. Even our constructive criticism of the Afghan government was perceived as an offense by Western diplomats and serving NATO officers in Kabul.

Meanwhile, president George W Bush took reliability of the newly emerged Afghan political leadership for granted, and gave them carte blanche and unconditional support in making Afghanistan a successful US foreign-policy endeavor.

However, Hamid Karzai, who became the country’s first democratically elected president in 2004, abused the international community’s political and financial support. Instead of focusing on unifying the country, he immediately started manipulating local politics in view of consolidating and extending his political power, and he therefore was able to engineer his re-election through extensive fraud in 2009.

Karzai’s second term as president from 2009 to 2014 was a disaster not only from a domestic political perspective but also for the US-led counterinsurgency. His administration was crippled with bad governance and widespread corruption, and by 2014 he had lost his domestic and international credibility.

In addition, his irritation with the US administration turned him into a critic of foreign military presence in Afghanistan. Consequently during the same period the insurgents were able to overcome the US military surge in 2009 and weather it well until NATO’s complete military transition to Afghan forces in 2014.

Before the presidential election in 2014 we Afghans were desperately looking for a genuine and honest leader who could take the country out of obsoleteness into the 21st century through necessary reform of the governing system and strengthening of vital state institutions.

Alas, the 2014 presidential election become the cause of the current political and ethnic crises because Karzai allowed fraud on an industrial scale, hoping that a contested election would allow him to remain in power.

Despite a contentious outcome and an unconstitutional power sharing between the two rival political camps in the aftermath of the 2014 election in the form of a National Unity Government (NUG), we were convinced that President Ashraf Ghani’s unique transformational vision for the country, as was stated during his inaugural speech, was the right prescription for the country.

However, he soon became preoccupied with internal power struggles within the NUG and gave up his initial nation-building vision. His actions, reminiscence of the disastrous rules of his predecessors, once again shattered our hopes about rebuilding a reliable and prosperous Afghan state.

President Ghani, an expert in failed states, instead of focusing on addressing the myriad security, political and economic crises plaguing Afghanistan, wasted valuable time and scarce state resources to sideline his political opponents and expand his direct control over state institutions. Therefore he has monopolized political power in the hands of a few in his inner circle, which has provoked widespread political and ethnic resentment in the country.

Meanwhile, for the sake of stability and survival of the NUG, the US and its NATO allies in Afghanistan have been providing unconditional support to President Ghani and shielding him against criticism at the expense of mounting political grievances among ordinary Afghans.

We are afraid that Ghani’s efforts in manipulating the electoral process for his re-election in 2019, as was the case with Karzai in 2009, will further deepen the current political and ethnic crises in the country. The United States and its allies in Afghanistan might be left once again in a situation where they will have no choice but to support an illegitimate government.

The Afghan people have lost faith in the democratic political process, and regardless of the Taliban’s intimidation they have already boycotted the ongoing voter registration throughout the country. This must serve as a warning to the Afghan government that people will not tolerate another fraudulent election.

From the first tainted presidential election in 2004 to the widely fraudulent one in 2014, the emerging Afghan governments have sunk deep into legitimacy crises, and another contested and fraud-ridden election in 2019 might lead the country into a full-blown civil war.

Meanwhile, without a legitimate and accountable government, the insurgents will not show any interest in a political settlement, and the United States and its allies in Afghanistan might find themselves propping up yet another weak government in Kabul.

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